The anti-racist, anti-sexist Conne Island Club in Leipzig caused a stir with a statement about sexual violence by refugees. But it was also keen not to align itself with populist racism, Ben Knight reports from Leipzig.
The Conne Island Club has put itself on the margins in more ways than one. The club is hidden from the road, tucked between a narrow river and a highway on the edge of the city's trendy Connewitz district. It also wears its politics on its walls, both inside and out, which are covered with "Antifascist" graffiti and "Refugees Welcome" stickers.
But on October 7, the club's political position became more subtle: it issued a 1,200-word article on its website entitled "One step forward, two steps back," which trod a careful path between the media's two predominant images of Germany over the past year: the applauding "Welcome Culture" volunteer-crowds at Munich train station and the anti-immigrant PEGIDA marches of Saxony.
The club initially aligned itself with the former (partly as an angry response to the racism of the latter), and offered space for integration projects like skateboarding workshops and German courses, while allowing refugees entry for 50 euro-cents ($0.55).
But, according to Conne Island's statement, "sexist advances and physical attacks have occurred more frequently … in Conne Island and other clubs - with the consequence that female guests have stayed away."
This was a real problem for a place that had, it said, spent the 25 years of its existence fighting for certain principles, which included zero tolerance for "sexist attacks … or anti-Semitic, racist, or any other type of discriminatory behavior."
'Patriarchal socialization in countries of origin'
After pointing out that, regardless of their nationality, "groups of roving men" often share a taste for unwanted sexual advances and sexist comments, Conne Island's management said that "the strongly authoritarian and patriarchal socialization in some of the refugees' countries of origin and the freedom of Western (party-)culture have created an explosive mix at our place."
An accumulation of incidents, exacerbated by language barriers and "fears of unjustified accusations of racism" among security personnel, had occasionally led to the police being called, something that clubs of Conne Island's type don't like to resort to. Most recently, the Saxony police reported that five Conne Island guests had on October 9 accused two young men, a Libyan and a Moroccan, of stealing their rucksacks and cell phones.
Going public with the problem was "difficult for us," the club management said, because "we didn't want to take the same racist line as the AfD and the CDU/CSU." (Referring to the populist right-wing Alternative for Germany party and Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union coalition.)
But, the club concluded, such cases "made clear how difficult it is to show aggressive solidarity with refugees, fight the right-wing climates and at the same time recognize that carrying a 'Refugees Welcome' bag doesn't automatically solve all problems and conflicts."
The story is not unique. In January, the White Rabbit Club in Freiburg, southern Germany, posted a similar message on its Facebook page, but condemned the local media for exploiting the situation and "playing to the voyeurism … of the right-wing populists without regard for the victims of sexual violence."
Ali N., a Syrian student who has lived in Leipzig for eight years, (and spent two of them helping refugees as a volunteer), isn't surprised that nightclubs are seeing this kind of trouble. "Saying all refugees are innocent is just as wrong as saying they're all evil," he told DW.
Ali, who didn't want his surname mentioned, says that he knows plenty of nightclubs in Leipzig that turn away foreigners - refugees or not. But, unlike the Conne Island management, he doesn't think the cultural differences are the main reason for sexist behavior.
"There are many who have criminal problems," as he puts it. In fact, he wonders why some people aren't deported. "I'm ashamed when I see Syrians, Moroccans, or Tunisians selling drugs in the main train station and the police does nothing," he said. "Sometimes I think they're letting them stay here deliberately so people think all foreigners are like that."
Ali also thinks the different asylum prospects of different nationalities has an effect. Syrians, for instance, have more to lose than Afghans or North Africans, because they have a better chance of being allowed to stay.
Asylum seekers facing deportation after a few months in a shelter and no chance of finding legitimate work, have every reason to resort to petty crime. He said he noticed young Afghans getting more aggressive when the government announced they too may be deported: "They think: What does it matter, if I'm getting deported anyway?"
Other refugee projects in Leipzig have noticed sexist, authoritarian attitudes among the new arrivals - though since most of them don't take place in a nightclub atmosphere, they usually express themselves in a less prosecutable way.
Sarah Schafmeister runs Leipzig's Südcafe, a twice-weekly meeting place for refugees and locals, said she understands why Conne Island wrote the letter.
"From the outside it seems the situation there is very tough, we don't have that in the Südcafe," she told DW. "But of course there are certain fixed boundaries, like racist and sexist encroachments and comments, and the challenge is how do we find a good learning process - from that point of view I think it's appropriate, the way Conne Island reacted."
Even in the sedate atmosphere of the Südcafe, Schafmeister said she'd had her own "borderline experiences": for instance when she had to admonish a group of "older men from the Arab region" who waded into the middle of a music concert she'd planned. "There was this moment when they were asking themselves, 'why should I let a young woman tell me what to do?'"
There was a similar incident, Schafmeister said, when these men were introduced to a female Egyptian artist presenting her posters on the theme of religious freedom and domestic violence. "You could see in a few faces that this was all new to them," she said.
But Schafmeister was keen to point out that, for every awkward experience like this, there were plenty of positive moments: in the aftermath of the New Year's Eve assaults in Cologne, for instance, "it was the unanimous opinion of all the refugees in the Südcafe that such behavior was unacceptable and a desire to make that opinion public."
And there were also signs of successful integration: one Iraqi man who initially wouldn't allow his wife and children to come to the cafe now regularly comes with his family.
In the wake of Conne Island's letter, much of the German media comment had a "told you so" quality - the Gutmenschen ("do-gooders") were facing reality. But to Schafmeister, that is also too simplistic.
"I wouldn't say we were naive," she added. "Of course at the beginning, the mood was more: 'let's get this done' - now we're realizing that there certainly are difficulties. I've noticed that personally as well, that we've landed in reality and I have to draw boundaries about what we want in the Südcafe."